The Seed of a Revolution in Red Hook

30_06trafficcalming.jpgHow can we get drivers to respect the communities they are driving though? How can we make traffic slow down if we can’t change the design of the street or the timing of the lights? How can a community reclaim its neighborhood streets?

For a few short hours last weekend, Red Hook, Brooklyn, had an answer. In the middle of Van Brunt Street, the neighborhood’s main drag and the primary conduit for the dramatically increased vehicle traffic generated by the new Fairway, an artist erected a mental speed bump in the middle of the street.

When I heard about it, I thought of what Allan B. Jacobs says about great intersections: "The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist."

In many parts of Van Brunt Street, the pedestrian realm effectively does not exist. One person has been killed on Van Brunt since Fairway moved in–a death that was essentially predicted by the chief of the 76th Precinct–and a resident interviewed by the Brooklyn Paper said he sees "accidents every week and near accidents almost daily. It wasn’t like this even a year ago."

Red Hook locals angered by last year’s pedestrian death demonstrated to protest the traffic conditions, and the DOT eventually responded by saying a traffic light will be installed–at some future point–at the corner of Van Brunt and Sullivan.

It’s a shame, though, that a traffic light is the only solution the city thinks to look for, and that the warrant for a traffic light only becomes relevant once the number of car trips reaches a certain threshold. Because there is still question whether a traffic light is really what is needed. Perhaps a stop sign, or more permanent forms of mental speed bumps, would yield better outcomes.

Red_hook_brookyn_NY_ek_2005_1.jpg
Red Hook in transition: Will the neighborhood be defined by cars and traffic or people and places?

Until Fairway came into the neighborhood, the sidewalks and many businesses of Van Brunt Street were among the most important destinations in Red Hook. Though the experience of them has been degraded by increased traffic (and just wait until IKEA opens), they remain valuable to the people living there and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The city’s DOT, EDC and consultants, however, see Van Brunt not as a destination in itself, but as a street with excess road capacity, prime to be exploited. Until there is congestion, or more people die, the "impacts" of the new traffic will not show up on their radar.

By just focusing on moving traffic and then evaluating its impacts later, we are degrading and isolating our existing neighborhood destinations and the communities they define. If transportation planning is supposed to facilitate getting people places, then its primary goal should be to create places worth going to, then maximizing their accessibility by creating more successful places nearby. This is perhaps the very nature of how we create a great, livable and walkable street.

In the name of mobility, transportation planners have forgotten to create and support destinations, and have instead often degraded existing destinations along the way. Mobility may be increasing, but we are accomplishing less and less while moving around more and more.


The Added Value market and farm project is creating a destination that celebrates the neighborhood.

Let’s take food shopping as an example. A destination like Fairway offers a limited and predictable set of benefits-a dazzling selection of food flown from in around the world (made possible by a food system that emphasizes food mobility while undermining food access). Red Hook’s Added Value farmers’ market, in contrast, or any other such market in Brooklyn, doesn’t offer that global selection. But if you shop there, especially if you travel by foot or bike or public transit, you might well accomplish 10 other things along the way-several of which may have been unplanned. It is this wealth of unplanned destinations that make many of Brooklyn’s neighborhood streets some of the best in the world.

This simple piece of temporary artwork in the middle of an intersection is a strong statement that neighborhood streets need attention as more than just conduits to "keep traffic moving smoothly." Perhaps this small act can be a turning point for Red Hook and for the city. Perhaps we start planning for neighborhood and community outcomes first, with the idea that local action will engender the broadest citywide outcomes (rather than the other way around). But it all comes down to how we treat each intersection, and good planning is very likely going to be more art than engineering.

  • David Chesler

    Off-topic: What does the symbol on the building mean, the red/white square/X ? I see this on buildings undergoing renovations. Sometimes it’s a slash instead of an X, not sure if this has to do with condemnations and rehabilitations.
    See another example at http://woburn.orfay.com/photo/625928

  • Clarence

    I LOVE the mental speed hump. I just wish someone had given me a heads up to get video in the area it was placed for before and after comparison (and we could break out the TA speed gun as well)

    I live in Carroll Gardens and for years I have been running in Red Hook. The streets there have become increasingly dangerous. It seems almost every time I run at least one turning car will try to cut me off in my runs; that NEVER happened five or six years ago. And didn’t happen with this regularity until the Fairway moved in. With all the kids in Red Hook, it is only a matter of time until there is another fatal collision.

  • Mitch

    Whenever the idea of mental speedbumps arises, my thoughts turn to the city of Aix-en-Provence, in France, whose old city has beautiful fountains right in the middle of the street.

    My favorite is Les Quatre Dauphins, which sits in the middle of an intersection in the finest part of a beautiful city. I can’t imagine that anything like this would ever exist in an American city, but the fountains of Aix are an inspiration, anyway.

  • Q.R.

    The X means the building has no floor — it’s so the fire department doesn’t go in if it burns, since nobody’s inside. It’s been implemented better since the Worcester Fire in 1999, when six firefighters were killed in an abandoned warehouse.

  • moocow

    I “discovered” Red Hook for myself after a BikeKill 2 or 3 years ago. I fell in love with it, rode out there as often as possible weekends and weekdays ever since. I even proposed to my wife on a loading dock by the Buttermilk Channel. I would say that the traffic volume since Fairway has increased 3 fold(? -in my unscientific opinion). As well as the aggressiveness of drivers. Last fall, while watching the newfound endless stream of cars inbound for the store, along raced a Fairway truck, outbound, must have been going 45mph past Hope and Anchor. How squeaky a wheel do we have to be?

  • I’ve noticed traffic measuring devices in Red Hook, so some work is being done to assess the current levels. I know people driving to Fairway are the most dangerous drivers in the Universe, but is there any data about surface street speeds in Red Hook prior to this year?

    Are you now arguing that poor people and artists don’t speed?

    I mean, the surface streets in Williamsburg are as badly managed as Red Hook, so this strikes me a bit as a gentrification fight by another name. There’s not wrong with a gentrification fight, but I do believe it’s important to be honest, since the traffic problems there apply to many other places in the city. If the city decides to appease the angry with some housing and zoning changes, what does that do for pedestrian safety?

    Non-signal traffic calming measures might help, but there is plenty wrong with Van Brunt. Sightlines are awful. On-street parking rules need to be revised to keep cars off the coners. Since there are no signal, you end up practically in the oncoming left lane if you are trying to turn left.

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